For Matt, every day is Earth Day. As a Florida native and a waterman, his passion led him to a career and life of working with nature.
On a partly cloudy afternoon, I met Matt on Jacksonville's Atlantic Beach, so he could talk about dunes, sediment, and finding a balance between manufactured and nature-based engineering solutions. Oh, and of course, a bit of his love of the ocean.
Matt, a coastal engineer and planner with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Jacksonville District, has worked and played on most of the 65,000 miles that make up the Florida coast and South Atlantic Coastal Study area. As we stood at the Seventh Street entrance of the beach, he showed me an old-timey black and white photo taken after Hurricane Dora in 1964 that he had enlarged of that very same spot.
He tells me, "Right there, there was a seawall, and in front of that seawall, we put 60 to 100 feet of just "flat beach" or berm. At that time, people didn't want the dunes. They removed them and built on top of them. They didn't want them because they blocked the ocean view. We have reports from the time that say dunes are unsightly and take up valuable recreation space. At one time, the dunes that were here were bigger."
During that period, beaches were constructed for erosion control and recreation.
I was particularly interested in discovering how USACE realized the importance of dunes and Matt revealed how it happened after one nourishment project in the seventies.
"The wind started blowing, and people's pools and yards started filling up with sand because the wind was blowing all the sand off our beach. Then the locals came and started putting down old Christmas trees to stop the sand from blowing. It was a local effort; the community built their dune."
Matt points out that the engineering and planning team did a great deal of research and through their study, they were informed by what they saw. After 30 years, these dunes functioned as a barrier providing protection for critical infrastructure, property along with securing crucial habitat for birds, nesting sea turtles, and other wildlife.
Matt perches on his feet, points down at the perfect wave-like pattern that forms around the base of the dune, and says "One of the things that makes dunes such a cool structure is how it is created. Right now, it's pretty windy, right? And so, when you look at this pattern in the sand, it was created by the wind."
I lower the lens of my camera to take a photo of the pattern, and I can see what he is talking about. Teeny tiny particles of sand circled about in the current of air. Matt explains how the coast is alive, and the sand is constantly moving. So not only does the wind carry sand, but the ocean and its currents play a role. The dunes are shaped by the movement of the fine particles of sand.
The dunes are not the same size and possibly even the same shape that they once were. This is where engineering with nature comes in, Matt is part of an engineering and planning team that use engineer with nature principles. The team studies, develops and deploys natural processes as well as natural and nature-based features that are intentionally integrated into our nation’s vital infrastructure. The goal is to maximize the sustainability of projects and enhance resilience to natural events.
First, the engineering and planning team looks at the slopes, crest elevation, and sand. Then the team optimizes the design while considering the cost, sea-level rise, storms, storm surges, and sand as a finite material.
Matt and his team had a problem:
1. In 2014 they recognized that beach nourishment was not a priority in the civil works national budget.
2. They knew that sand was (and still is) a finite material.
3. Natural structures such as dunes were critical to the coastal ecosystem and crucial to protecting the communities living near the ocean.
It wasn't long before they figured out the solution to their problem was only a few miles away in the St. Johns River.
"For the vast majority of the things, you need sediment; not just any sand will work. You need a very fine grain. The type of grain that we dredge from the river," said Matt. "and USACE knows how to dredge, move and build with the material. It's called Regional Sediment Management (RSM)."
USACE has been involved in RSM for 22 years, taking sediment with the appropriate grain size that works on the beach and nourishing the beaches. The Jacksonville district was slowly growing its way towards engineering with nature.
The team's research and planning continues to impact several Civil Works priorities by being resourceful and having an ecological mindset.
Matt is very passionate about finding nature-based solutions for our problems, but like any solid engineer, he shared some wisdom.
"There has to be a balance. Yes, we can find nature-based solutions, but we will need some engineering to compensate for what might naturally take time. We can't do it alone. We will need our sister agencies, state and local partners; they are just as critical to the mission."
Celebrating Earth Day is a nudge, a friendly reminder that without Earth, without nature, we would have no place to call home and that by preserving nature and protecting the Earth, we are in turn, protecting ourselves. Matt is just one of the many on the Jacksonville District’s team that is committed to caring for our planet and is part of USACE’s Engineering with Nature initiative.
Ensuring environmental stability and resilience is among the top priorities outlined in the recently released USACE Research and Development Strategy. For more on the strategy, visit https://usace.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p16021coll11/id/5457.